Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Modern Crime Requires Modern Enforcement Tactics

No Country for an Old Men underscores need to update policing techniques

Ed Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is a man with a problem.

Approaching the twilight years of his life, Bell is a man who is quickly realizing that he's also reaching the twilight years of his career.

With a certain romantic regard for the days of the old west, Jones is a man who's realizing the face of crime is changing before his very eyes. Feeling that crimes once considered unthinkable are becoming more and more commonplace, Bell is finding himself forced to question whether or not his preferred method of police work has become obselete in the face of modern crime.

The Coen brothers set No Country for Old Men in 1980. Now, the fact that the film is filled with cars built after 1980 and beef jerky and Corona beer packaged as it currently appears on shelves.

Most importantly, however, No Country for an Old Man pits Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) against Anton Chirgurh (Javier Bradern) in a cat-and-mouse battle of wills over $2 million Moss recovers from the site of a drug deal gone seriously wrong, with Bell constantly one step behind.

In Chigurgh, Bell encounters a breed of criminal he's never faced before: an uncontrollable killer-for-hire who turns on his own employers, and covers his tracks by way of what he makes seem like random killings.

In the wake of 9/11, one particular issue has come to dominate the realm of law enforcement: that of terrorism.

The obvious need to address the threat posed by terrorism has led to a myriad of issues: questions regarding how much personal freedom citizens should be expected to surrender in order to ensure society's security, questions regarding how much power should be granted to law enforcement personell, and questions regarding what civil rights will be extended to "enemy combatants" have served as obvious examples.

In retrospect, the occurance of 9/11 alone was enough to demonstrate that law enforcement and security personell have not been up to the task of meeting these threats. Lack of cooperation between varying levels of law enforcement and security/intelligence services failed to collaborate enough to prevent the Al Qaida hijackers from boarding their flights and perpetrating their crimes.

On a fundamental level, part of this failure is a failure to properly conceptualize terrorism in the first place.

Depending upon whom one asks, terrorism is either a crime or an act of war. Both of these ideas are actually correct, but taken separately, each one brings with it a dangerous set of presumptions that actually serve to handcuff both our intelligence/security services and law enforcement services.

Under the "act of war" analysis favoured by intelligence/security services, terrorism is primarily viewed as an aggressive act perpetrated by foreign actors, be they state or non-state.

As such, it's believed that the best way to address terrorism is by performing intelligence work abroad, and forcibly dismantling terrorist networks overseas. This brings with it a necessary foreign policy focus on addressing rogue states and their support of terrorists.

A criminological analysis, as favoured by law enforcement services, addresses terrorism as a criminal act, and requires not only a myriad of police powers in order to help stop terrorist acts before they occur, as well as sufficient legal tools in order to both investigate successful attacks, and catch and convict those responsible.

Of course, the law enforcement perspective requires a focus not only on the detection and prevention of existing terrorist threats, but also the deterrence of future plots. It would also require efforts directed at detecting and dealing with terrorist cells that are both domestic in nature, as well as based in foreign countries.

Given the lack of crackdowns on domestic terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, the integration of criminological thought into anti-terrorist tactics has clearly been neglected.

This can also be confirmed when one considers that, as of 9/11, terrorist acts weren't recorded in criminal statistics, even after the Oklahoma city bombing. In both cases, the victims were simply recorded as "homocide victims", then the inflated homicide figures annotated to note how many had been the victims of a terrorist attack.

Yet, even in the United States, most police officers lack even the most rudimentary anti-terrorist training. One needs to look no further than Michael Moore's Farenheit 9/11 in which an Oregon state trooper, assigned to patrol the ocean shores watching for potential terrorist threats admits that he hasn't been trained to recognize the signs of a terrorist plot, or in what to do if he does detect one.

Clearly, this is a shortcoming that needs to be rectified. Although it may smack of alarmism, a terrorist plot could be hatched anywhere. As such, every active police officer in North America should have the necessary counter-terrorism training.

Otherwise, all too many police officers could share the fate of Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), a "fixer" hired by the cartel Chirgurh betrays in order to track him down and deal with him. Wells underestimates the threat posed by Chirgurh (whom Wells himself describes as "maniacal"), and pays for it with his life -- and arguably, that of his subsequent victims.

Worse yet, our entire law enforcement system could find itself in the shoes of Ed Bell -- faced with a breed of criminal he's never faced before, constantly finding himself unable to catch up in order to prevent the inevitable bloodshed.

Of course, the issues of what powers to grant to law enforcement and to courts is a much more nebulous issue, one probably left for another place and time.

One thing that is certain, however, is that if we fail to adopt the changes necessary in order to fight terrorism (and it's only natural that there will be a great deal of debate over this -- as there must be), our next encounter with terrorism may have as disappointing an end as No Country for Old Men.

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